From School Teacher To #1 Ranked STEAM Education Franchise

Welcome to another episode of Atlanta Franchise Today with host Leslie Kuban, expert franchise consultant and owner of FranNet Atlanta. Atlanta Franchise Today is dedicated to bringing entrepreneurs and business owners the best practices and tips for their franchise goals.

Quality education for kids is in the heart of every parent. It‘s a very popular category in franchising, and it’s only going to keep growing as the millennial generation is now at the age of buying homes and starting families. In this episode, Leslie sits down with Sharon Duke Estroff. Sharon is the founder and CEO of Challenge Island, the world’s number one STEAM education franchise with 130 locations in the US and worldwide. Today, we’re going to learn about STEAM education and how it’s good for the community and good for entrepreneurs.

Transcription:

Leslie Kuban:
Welcome to the show, Sharon. It’s great to have you.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
Thanks for having me.

Leslie Kuban:
Absolutely.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
Great to have another Atlanta Franchise friend.

Leslie Kuban:
Yes. Homegrown.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
For sure. Yes.

Leslie Kuban:
Here in Marietta, Georgia.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
Indeed. Yes.

Leslie Kuban:
And you’ve been around for a long time, but for our viewers who are just learning about Challenge Island for the first time, tell us about your business. Who are your customers?

Sharon Duke Estroff:
So, yes, I originally started Challenge Island when I was a second grade teacher. I had recently entered my Dr. Jacqueline/Mrs. Hyde phase as like to call it. Whereby day I was this great teacher. I was even voted best teacher in Atlanta by a major Atlanta publication. But at night where I have my four kids and I had just had my fourth at the time, who is now at college, she’s 19. So Challenge Island is as old as she is. I knew I needed to come up with something else. I couldn’t keep doing it because it was my own kids that were not getting all of me. I would bring it all to school. But then when I got home, I was so exhausted. I couldn’t even get up off the couch to help my kids with their homework.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
And I didn’t know what else to do. And really, I didn’t want to do anything else because I loved working with kids and educating the next generation. So I thought and thought and thought and ended up taking this program that I had created for my second graders, which was always a really big hit in the classroom. I took it on the road and to the schools in the East Cobb area and Sandy Springs area at the time. And I was doing great with Challenge Island, but I ran it and for about nine years or so, I was running it as my own business. And then I was approached by a company, a franchising company at the time that basically, I sold Challenge Island to them and they started franchising.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
The only problem was that like a lot of companies in franchising, I think that sometimes franchise educational concepts, not all obviously, but some they’re more business than education. And I was a teacher, I was an educator. I knew what the schools were wanting. I knew that what I had was a pretty complex concept, long story short, they started on the franchise journey. And a few years later I was, thank goodness, able to buy back Challenge Island. It was my baby, it was my fifth child. And I bought it back and we had about 20 franchisees at the time who desperate, they were kind of like rescue dogs. They desperately needed me to be there and I knew that. And that was in 2016, believe it or not. I spent 2016 really trying to stabilize what I had and really get ready for the next step. And in 2017 we just started taking off. And here we are today, over 130, we just had another training. So maybe it’s 132 or 133. And it’s been a really exciting, wonderful ride.

Leslie Kuban:
What a great turnaround story there, Sharon.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
It was hard, but when I truly felt like the Challenge Island was my baby. And I think that sometimes that can be problematic for founders because they’re so emotionally attached to it. But I know that Challenge Island needs me. It still needs me at this point. We’ve reached 5 million kids so far and so many more to come.

Leslie Kuban:
That’s so exciting.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
[inaudible 00:05:01] a lot of work to do.

Leslie Kuban:
So tell us about the business model, Challenge Island, the name, the brand and your book you recently just came out with this book and a book series. Tell us about the format in which you educate children.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
I feel like with Challenge Island, whatever is the hottest new thing in the schools like right now, it’s all about project based learning and social, emotional learning. Because, of course, the kids don’t know how to work with other kids and they’re socially and emotionally in a really bad spot. So whatever it is, that is the big thing at the moment, we’ve always been that. It’s just a matter of bringing it together. So the model, we are an enrichment program. We are not a core curricular program, although we do enhance the core curriculum. So we do field trips. So we come into the school, whatever the standards are that the school is trying to address, or the second grade teacher is trying to address. Let’s say its natural habitats or animal habitats. We can align one of our challenges, one of our hundreds of challenges with whatever it is.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
So we come and we do field trips on site, which obviously is really huge right now because nobody’s leaving school for the most part. We do programs after school. So we do after school enrichment and we do summer camps. We work a lot with the Girl Scouts. [inaudible 00:06:31] Those are really our primary profit centers. We also do family engagement programming, which is very big right now. There’s a lot of government funding out right now, a ridiculous amount. Just little Cobb County probably got a hundred million dollars in the COVID relief funding, just in the second round. A lot of that is earmarked for exactly what we do for the enrichment, for the engagement.

Leslie Kuban:
Well, that’s an exciting time, especially, it’s interesting. I’ve read quite a lot about, I mentioned the millennial generation that, we think of millennials as it’s just kind of a catchall for young people. And I’m sure they’re sick of hearing themselves called millennials, but the millennial generation is in their early forties and 30s and they’re buying homes, they’re having families. They’re going to be investing in their kids’ education and enrichment activities. So I would expect good things for the future of your business.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
Definitely. I think one of the really neat things about Challenge Island is it’s a combination of the B2B sale, which is the parent, business to the parents. But even, I would probably say about 75% of our programming is the B2B sale with the other business, being the school systems, the school districts, the community organizations, they love what we do. And so our franchise owner really is that person who’s going to go out there and make those relationships happen at a pretty high level, which is one of my favorite parts about challenge island.

Leslie Kuban:
That’s where that business executive who’s used to business relationships.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
Exactly.

Leslie Kuban:
But might also treasure education.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
That’s right.

Leslie Kuban:
And like working with kids can marry their passion and their skillsets in that way.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
It’s so true. And I think we have such a dead on product. And as far as the book series as well.

Leslie Kuban:
Yes. Tell us about the book.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
So before I was doing franchising, in addition to being a teacher, I was an author, I guess you’re always an author. And I wrote parenting books for Random House. I had an internationally syndicated parenting column actually that was everywhere. I still feel like people know me most from that parenting column. But anyway, and then I went on and started building Challenge Island. And I had a wonderful literary agent up in New York, who has since really gotten into this sort of kids book series market. And she approached me about it. She said, “You know, The Magic School Bus and The Magic Treehouse, those books, I think Challenge Island fits there. I think there’s something really fresh.” But what I wasn’t expecting, I knew this was going to do great things for the brand.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
I wasn’t expecting the librarians and the Children’s Book Council and the School Library Journal to be like, “Wow, this is an amazing book.” In fact, we got a review from the School Library Journal that said, “This book belongs in every elementary and middle school library.” And for us, as a Challenge Island owner, I mean, it just doesn’t get better. That’s just an incredible review. So, it has shockingly to me, not only helped my owners become, it gives us credibility. We walk in, we’ve got a book series, that’s immediate credibility, being able to do those things. It’s a really good thing for me.

Leslie Kuban:
So we’re coming out of the pandemic. It’s 2022 and that’s such an interesting story going from educator to now you’re the CEO of a franchise brand with 130 franchises, which is a really notable accomplishment. I saw a statistic from FRANdata that 77% of franchise companies have less than a hundred units. And you’re well beyond that now. So you’re kind of in the big leagues now.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
I know.

Leslie Kuban:
And so just looking ahead this year, what do you feel your biggest opportunities and your biggest challenges are ahead as a franchise company?

Sharon Duke Estroff:
Our icon is the palm tree. After the hurricane comes through and you’ve got your big old oak trees and they’re established and they’ve been there forever. And they’re impressive looking, and you have your really tall pine trees that shot up and they’re just kind of looking down on everyone. And then you have these little Palm trees. Not really until the hurricane comes through and the pine trees are toppled over, because they’re so rigid and they don’t have very strong roots and the oak trees are toppled over, but those Palm trees are still there. And so what’s happened is, and not that I wish anything on any of our competition, but a lot of our owners are now finding that there’s no competition left. Everybody else was a pine tree. So, here we are just standing there and the demand is unbelievable. But the really amazing thing about the palm tree is that every time the winds come through the roots actually get stronger and deeper.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
And so I think Challenge Island is very grounded in exactly what we are. We know what we are. We don’t use any digital technology. We don’t have robotics, we don’t have Legos. We use stuff from the Dollar Tree and Costco. We want kids to, back to the days when we were kids and they could just do amazing things with a box. I remember refrigerator boxes, so we want to get them back to that. And so, I think our vision and it’s so right now, especially the resilience, all of the stuff that we’ve always done is what these kids need. Traditionally, in franchising you want to get the most affluent area, pick your territory. You want to sort of pick the most affluent areas and that’s true to a degree with Challenge Island. However, some of our very, very biggest are within the poorest, poorest school districts because they need us the most and they have incredible grant funding.

Leslie Kuban:
It sounds like you’ve got a lot of great opportunities in the works.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
So many.

Leslie Kuban:
So that’s exciting for you, Sharon. I’m so delighted to have you visit on the show and share with our audience about your very inspiring story, the ups and the downs. And it’s brought you to a really great place. Congratulations on your success.

Sharon Duke Estroff:
Thank you.

Leslie Kuban:
Folks, thanks for joining me on this episode of Atlanta Franchise Today. If our interview inspired you to want to learn more about Challenge Island, either as a customer or as a franchise opportunity, you’re going to see a QR code coming up on your screen right now. If you open up your mobile phone and open up your camera, it’s going to give you access to request information directly from Challenge Island, and they’ll reach out to you right away. Thanks for joining me again on Atlanta Franchise Today and I look forward to seeing again next week.


The Atlanta Small Business Network, from start-up to success, we are your go-to resource for small business news, expert advice, information, and event coverage.

While you’re here, don’t forget to subscribe to our email newsletter for all the latest business news know-how from Atlanta Small Business Network.